How racial issues will define the 2020 presidential election

Nonwhite voters make up one-third of the 2020 electorate.

August 18, 2020, 5:04 AM

As the nation reckons with its complicated racial history, issues that impact communities of color are taking center stage in the platforms of each major political party.

With less than three months until the election, an effective pitch during the conventions will be crucial as nonwhite voters make up about one-third of the 2020 electorate, according to Pew Research.

ABC News interviewed political experts, strategists, activists, campaign officials, and party leaders to identify a few of the issues that could prove important as communities of color cast their ballots in November and how each campaign is expected to address them during the upcoming conventions.

The Democratic Party will formally present its historic ticket in former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris, the first Black woman and first Asian American woman running mate for a major party, at this week's convention. But that won't be enough.

"You don't want to have any false modesty about a Black woman being on the ticket, but it takes more than just that to motivate Black women to vote," Harris acknowledged Friday in an interview with The 19th, a nonprofit news organization focused on the intersection of gender and politics.

The Democratic Party's 2020 platform seeks to address issues of systemic racism head-on.

"Democrats will root out structural and systemic racism in our economy and our society, and reform our criminal justice system from top to bottom, because we believe Black lives matter," the Democratic National Committee's platform reads.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, pass each other at a campaign event in Wilmington, Del., Aug. 2, 2020.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, pass each other at a campaign event in Wilmington, Del., Aug.12, 2020.
Carolyn Kaster/AP, FILE

The DNC platform calls for a national commission to study the effects of racially discriminatory practices and policies within the area of criminal justice.

Biden's plan calls for alternatives to detention and investment in communities impacted by mass incarceration. It also calls for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing and the expungement of convictions for marijuana use. The issue disproportionately affects Blacks, who are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites despite equal usage, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Despite Biden's perch as a moderate, Brandon Gassaway, national press secretary for the DNC, told ABC News that if elected, the former vice president will have "the most progressive administration in the history of our party."

"With the things that we're talking about, especially when you get to criminal justice reform, from the front end of the system to the back end, when you talk about things like sentencing and reentry, this is the most progressive platform we've ever had as a party," Gassaway said, pointing to Biden's comprehensive criminal justice plan, which calls for investing $300 million in community policing.

"I think you'll see over the week of conventions and throughout the rest of the [election season] that this is where the Democratic Party is and where I think the country needs to start moving," Gassaway added.

Though President Donald Trump has polled abysmally with people of color, with support at just 8% among registered Black voters and 34% among Latino voters in the latest Fox News Poll, his administration can point to victories related to justice reform, including his signing of the First Step Act, and his recent executive order on safe policing, which encourages law enforcement to adopt stricter standards on the use of force.

"What we are doing at the RNC is we're proud to highlight the contrast between the two candidates and the two campaigns," said Paris Dennard, GOP senior communications adviser for Black Media Affairs, arguing that policies such as the 1994 Crime Bill, legislation written by then-Sen. Biden created disparities that span generations.

"The Biden campaign is one with the most destructive policies that have damaged and hurt black generational wealth and the Black community. The other campaign, the Trump campaign, is one that is responsible for criminal justice reform. Biden and Harris, both leaders, were busy locking up young black men with harsh sentences and calling them predators, and President Trump was out finding ways to give them second chances to break and undo the mass incarceration that came from the crime bill through the First Step Act," Dennard said.

However, experts say the president's racially divisive comments, like referring to Mexicans crossing the southern border as "criminals, drug dealers, rapists" or calling the Black Lives Matter mural outside of Trump Tower a "symbol of hate," will be an obstacle for the RNC regardless of the racial issues addressed in its platform.

"The last couple of months before the election is unfortunately very reminiscent of George Wallace, and he is doubling down on white supremacy," said Nadia Brown, a political science professor at Purdue University, referencing the staunch segregationist's 1968 run for the presidency.

Angela Ocampo, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, argued that while there have been "symbolic gestures" made to reach out to the Latino community by the GOP, "everything in many ways becomes undermined by the actions of the president and his continued vitriolic rhetoric against the Latino community."

However, Andres Malave, a Latino-American Republican strategist, says the president's economic record -- as well as measures like the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative that seeks to improve education and economic opportunities for Latinos -- will ultimately strengthen his outreach with Hispanic voters.

"He's clearly concerned with making sure that everybody in this country has a job and has a fair shake and [is] achieving their version of the American dream," Malave said. "Those are results that people are going to take into consideration when they go into the voting booth."

Police reform and public safety front and center

Experts and community activists point to George Floyd's death and the protests that followed as catalysts for conversations about systemic racism and police reform.

The movement, propelled by Black Lives Matter organizers, has made demands to "defund the police," or move funds from law enforcement agencies to social programs as a means to bolster change.

"People are just fed up," said LaTosha Brown, co-founder for Black Voters Matter Fund, an organization that seeks to build Black political power through investments in local grassroots organizing, voter registration, and civic engagement.

"The Black community is fed up with the state-sanctioned violence, the police brutality, and violence against the community. The folks that we're talking to, they are looking for a radical transformation of how policing takes place in this country, and they want to see changes in the criminal justice system, which has exploited and devastated our community," LaTosha Brown said.

Recent calls for systemic reforms are not only widely supported by Black Americans, but also white and Latino Americans. Sixty-three percent of Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll. Sixty-nine percent of white Americans and 62% of Latinos believe that minorities receive unequal treatment in the criminal justice system.

"Latinos really support the Black Lives Matter movement and they believe that police violence is systemic, and, in particular, younger Latinos do see protests as an important avenue," said Ocampo.

The Democrats' opportunity to meet the moment ahead of the November election will come with challenges. Biden's record on criminal justice will come under more intense scrutiny as progressive Democrats seek a candidate who will commit to making systemic changes for racial equality.

The former vice president has been criticized for his part in crafting the controversial 1994 crime bill that some argue contributed to mass incarceration. Biden has said he does not support defunding the police, but has called for connecting people to social services, detention alternatives for nonviolent offenders and fairer sentencing practices.

Biden campaign co-chair Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., who does not support calls to defund the police, argued that funding is required to provide for activists' calls for reform.

"We can't make sure that every officer has a body camera, and that they can store the data for a certain length of time if they don't have the money to do that. We can't do de-escalation training if we don't have the money to do that," said Richmond. "We can't do diversity and sensitivity training if we don't have the money to do that. So there are a number of things that are consistent with what a number of social justice groups are demanding and police reform groups are demanding that cost money."

Nadia Brown told ABC News that a reluctance to embrace the terminology of activists might make it more difficult for voters to determine if Biden supports their causes and could impact turn out. Although, she said his criminal justice plan does include some of the reforms activists support.

"[Biden is] doing some of these, just not under the same kind of terminology or titles, but his platform has now embraced some of the same policy recommendations," said Nadia Brown.

She added, "He still is a moderate, but he has embraced some ideas that moderates before him have not and part of that is really pinpointing systemic inequalities, as opposed to highlighting personal choice and behavioral issues."

Alicia Garza, one of three co-founders of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, said the Biden campaign should be doing more to build relationships with leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement if he expects the support of some protesters come November.

"When it comes to BLM, this movement is vast, and, frankly, I think it is important for the vice president to be in conversation with the various sectors of the movement so that he has a better understanding of what Black Lives Matter stands for, so that he has a better understanding of where the gaps are between where he stands and where this movement stands, but also so that he builds relationships with this movement," Garza said during a virtual discussion on the movement on July 17.

"These are his constituents, and these will be his constituents moving forward if he wins. And so it's not enough to say 'Black lives matter,' you actually need to build relationships with this movement as well," Garza added.

President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing at the White House Aug. 13, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

On criminal justice reform, the GOP platform rolled over from 2016, reads, "The next president must not sow seeds of division and distrust between the police and the people they have sworn to serve and protect. The Republican Party, a party of law and order, must make clear in words and action that every human life matters."

The platform calls for alternatives to detention for first-time nonviolent offenders, defends the death penalty and calls for mandatory prison time for assaults on police officers that result in serious injury.

Despite criticisms made against Trump for his response to protesters, Dennard asserts the president has remained "resolved" and "responsive" to the calls for police reform.

"When it has called for action, the president met with law enforcement. He met with civil rights organizations and leaders. He met with a number of Black leaders and heard from people that were actually impacted by violence and death caused by police. And when we put out the executive order on safe police and safe communities, which calls for an end to the chokehold, and he also supported [Sen.] Tim Scott's JUSTICE Act," Dennard said, referring to the South Carolina Republican's police reform bill introduced in June.

The Republican-led police reform bill would encourage police departments to use less excessive force by leveraging federal funds to end practices like chokeholds. The proposed legislation would create a commission to study the use of no-knock warrants in drug cases, and require states and local government to report use-of-force incidents that result in deaths or serious injuries to the FBI on an annual basis.

Lead Democrats in the Senate, including Sen. Harris, say the Justice Act bill does not go far enough to enact substantial police reform.

The Democrat-led police reform bill, The Justice in Policing Act, would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants at the federal level. It would require states to report any incident of excessive force on a civilian or police officer to the Justice Department and calls for a national registry on complaints, terminations, and disciplinary records.

Nadia Brown, a political science professor at Purdue University, argued that the Trump administration could point to legislative wins like criminal justice reform to reach out to Black and Latino voters, but doesn't believe the party will take advantage of the opportunity before the election.

"Policies that they can point to, like criminal justice reform, for example, would be a thing that they could and should say they've been successful in reaching out to Black and brown communities, but they're not going to do this," said Brown.

Dennard said the RNC will focus on distinguishing Trump and the Republican Party as the platform that prioritizes law and order, as gun violence surges in major urban cities during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Black communities, Black mothers, single mothers, grandparents, Black fathers want their children to grow up in cities that are safe," Dennard said. "When you talk about the president having a message of public safety, it's because we know safety and security are important to voters and important to Black people, especially.

Dennard says there needs to be a "reasonable expectation that if that if you're in the Black community, if you go outside with your child, you will not get shot."

Economic fallout from COVID-19 slams communities of color

Record unemployment numbers, which more harshly affect communities of color, will also be a focus as voters head to the polls, according to experts.

The U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 10.2% in July, slightly below June's 11.1% mark, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

President Donald Trump prepares to sign executive orders during a news conference in Bedminster, NJ, Aug 8,2020. | Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Wilmington, Del, July 28, 2020.

Black people faced the highest rates of unemployment in July, at 14.6%, with Hispanics behind that at 12.9%, significantly higher than their white counterparts, who have an unemployment rate of 9.4%, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"People are really looking for some economic relief," LaTosha Brown said, noting that Black women are often more likely to be hourly wage workers, work in lower-paying, service-oriented jobs, and be out of work due to the pandemic.

"Many of those workers were some who have actually lost their employment, and when they don't work, they don't make money," LaTosha Brown said. "Many of them also have the added responsibility of having children or being the caretaker of family members. And so with the schools not being open, with the options being limited around caretaking and caregiving, they're also having this additional stress as well."

"With the lack of willingness for Republicans in Congress and the Democrats to come up with a solvable solution to unemployment and the economic slowdown due to COVID-19 [it] is really pushing people to the polls," said Nadia Brown. "We want a government that works."

"[Latinos] have been hit the hard in terms of their financial well-being and stability," said Ocampo.

In this June 18, 2020, file photo, people line up outside a Kentucky Career Center hoping to find assistance with their unemployment claim in Frankfort, Ken.
Bryan Woolston/Reuters, FILE

Biden's Build Back Better plan includes expanded access to small business loans, business development resources, and education to minority entrepreneurs as a part of his effort to advance racial equity. It also calls for giving minority business owners more access to federal procurement contracts.

His plans also call for the construction of 1.5 million affordable homes and public housing units, reforms to credit reporting, and fairer housing regulations.

"We understand that it's going to take very specific and targeted efforts to fix a very specific and targeted problem," said Richmond.

Black and minority-owned businesses have also suffered the brunt of the pandemic's economic fallout, with the number of African American-owned businesses dropping by 41% and the number of Latino business dropping by 32%, according to a June report from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The Trump administration faced criticism, most vocally from Harris, who cited a Center for Responsible Lending report that showed 90% of minority- and women-owned small businesses did not receive access to Paycheck Protection Program loans.

Dennard argued that Trump responded to the disparity by creating a task force that focuses on the impact of COVID-19 on minority communities, efforts that the Republican Party will highlight.

"When it comes to the issue of the economy, keeping our taxes low, having deregulation and making it easier for people to get access to capital, that is something that hasn't changed. But what [the pandemic] has done is made it even more pronounced and even more a part of the president's agenda, as you saw [the president] reform the focus of the White House's Economic Revitalization and Opportunity Council to focus specifically on minority impact from COVID-19," Dennard said.

After facing pressure to address the racial disparities amid the pandemic, Trump directed the White House council, which focuses on urban renewal in distressed areas, to shift its focus to the economic fallout in African American communities.

COVID-19 illuminates racial health disparities

Across the country, Blacks and Latinos have contracted and died from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates.

One in 1,450 Black Americans has died from coronavirus, according to report from the National Urban League released on Thursday, August 13, a prominent civil rights and urban advocacy organization. That rate is much higher than the 1 in 3,000 Latinos or 1 in 3,350 white Americans.

With higher hospitalization rates, the study also revealed that Black and Latino patients tend to receive less-aggressive treatments than white patients in their battle with the coronavirus.

A pair of beach goers wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Aug. 11, 2020, in Miami Beach, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP

The National Urban League report also states that Americans of color are overrepresented among the uninsured, particularly in Republican-led states that did not expand Medicaid.

The Trump administration along with 20 Republican-led states formally called on the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the Affordable Care Act, which allows states to expand Medicaid eligibility to non-elderly low-income Americans.

Currently, 19% of Black Americans and 11.5% of Latinos are without health insurance, according to the National Urban League report.

"If there was ever a time in America when it was apparently clear that we need an overhaul of our health care system, and that every single person needs access to comprehensive health care, it is now. People are talking about health care," LaTosha Brown said.

"While we are in this major global pandemic, down in southwest Georgia, which has a been a hotspot in the state, there's a hospital that is set to close within the next 30 days, and part of that has resulted from the refusal of these Republican governors in the South to expand Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act," Brown added.

"We're seeing our communities on the receiving end of these bad policies on issues that have been overly politicized by the Republican Party in a way that really does not center the value and the significance of people," she said.

As the coronavirus has continued to spread, President Trump's approval rating has continued to decline, with 59% of voters disapproving of his handling of the pandemic, according to an ABC News/ Ipsos poll released Monday.

With pressure to enact a more aggressive response, the White House announced plans earlier this month to take a portion of the $100 billion in emergency spending approved by Congress and use it to reimburse hospitals and other health care providers for treating the estimated 28 million people who are uninsured in the United States.

"The president, by cutting bureaucracy and red tape, has done what he can to put the resources states and all Americans need in place," Republican Strategist Andres Malave said.

But Gassaway, the DNC press secretary, said the current disparities in health care allow the Democratic Party to appeal to uninsured voters.

"We are the party that fought for, passed, and instituted the Affordable Care Act. [The RNC] is the party that is in court today to remove the protection of the Affordable Care Act in the midst of a pandemic. They are engaged in an ongoing lawsuit. That right there illustrates where our party's priorities are versus where the opposition party priorities are," Gassaway said, adding that these issues will be highlighted during the party's convention.

While progressive factions of the Democratic Party have called for "Medicare for All," especially in light of the COVID-19 crisis that has slammed communities of color, the Biden campaign has not. Instead, Biden's health plan calls for a public option similar to Medicare building on the Obama administration's signature policy: the Affordable Care Act. The plan aims to expand health coverage to low-income Americans and doesn't eliminate private insurance.

Biden's plan to combat COVID-19 calls for testing, treatment, preventive services and an eventual vaccine to be provided to patients free of any out-of-pocket costs.

"Concerns of health care costs, which you know also intersect with financial distress and concerns about economic well-being, are going to play a big role in the 2020 election," said Ocampo.